Unsolved Minor Mysteries

“You live your life in the songs you hear

On the rock and roll radio

And when a young girl doesn’t have any friends

That’s a really nice place to go

Folks hoping you’d turn out cool

But they had to take you out of school

You’re a little touched you know, Angie baby…

…Angie girl, are you all right?

Tell the radio good-night

All alone once more, Angie baby”

Lyrics excerpted from “Angie Baby”, Written by Alan O’Day, performed by Helen Reddy

From the Helen Reddy LP, Free and Easy, 1974

 

I grew up “out in the sticks” of Southwestern Pennsylvania. A pre-teen kid growing up in the country has no stores within walking distance. My major stimulus was nature. For me, media was confined to my parents’ Life Magazine subscription, our radio and television, and a stack of 45s with music primarily from the 1940s. My family did not own a stereo until I was in junior high. Before that, all we had was a record player designed for 45 rpm singles. I played their 45s to death, and unfortunately ended up ruining many. Our television was black and white and there was no such thing as cable TV. Our station selection was limited to the six local stations in the tri-state area that our roof-installed antenna could capture on our 13-channel Motorola set. Our radios had AM but not FM. The only musical instruments in the house were my older brothers’ trombone and clarinet that they played in the high school band, and after they grew up the instruments left with them. I was only nine years old when the youngest of my brothers graduated from college and moved out. Until my teenage years, my resources for contemporary music and art were quite limited.

There were not many kids on the unpaved road where I lived, and houses were far apart. Farms bordered our 1.6 acres on three sides. Radio became my friend. Sometime in my junior high years I became interested in hearing radio stations outside our local area. I became excited that during the day I could hear the hit songs that were playing on WKYC in Cleveland, Ohio, and that some of these songs were different than what was playing on local Pittsburgh stations. In the evening I was amazed that I could hear stations as far away as KMOX, St. Louis, Missouri, or WRVA, Richmond, Virginia. I began writing down what I was hearing, by location on the radio dial. Soon, I was hearing stations further and further away from my rural home outside Washington, Pennsylvania. There was XEG in Monterrey, Mexico, CBJ in Chicoutimi, Quebec, and CBA in Moncton, New Brunswick. At that time, I had no idea there were others like me all around the world who were interested in hearing distant stations as a hobby. But there actually is such a hobby and it covers the entire radio and television spectrums. I soon learned about this hobby when in 9th grade my parents bought me a radio that covered AM, FM, and shortwave, coupled with a subscription to the now-defunct magazine, Radio-TV Experimenter which included White’s Radio Log. Soon I was listening to stations around the world, including Radio Ghana, Radio Brasilia, Radio Moscow, Radio Australia; I logged stations on every continent, including Antarctica. Listening to radio provided exposure to regional differences within our country as well as cultural differences throughout the world. I heard different perspectives on world and local news as well as different music.

I have written before about my attraction to music that is strange, obscure, or rare. That attraction seems to be hotwired into my DNA and affects more than music. It affects all my interests, including radio. I was not just interested in hearing the huge powerhouses across the globe like the BBC, Radio Moscow or Voice of America. I wanted to hear the flea powered stations in obscure locations like Radio Saint Helena from that tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. What really excited me was the obscure, and the mysterious; stations not only of low power in remote locations, but stations that are on the air but a fleeting moment – enter pirate radio.

The first time I heard a pirate radio station, I had no idea what was going on. The station announced as “The Voice of the Purple Pumpkin”. I heard it on shortwave in 1970. It was a countercultural station playing cuts from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”, and it used the famous intro to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in their station identification. They had a risqué comedy skit about “the establishment” and they spoke against the Vietnam war, claiming they were broadcasting from Hanoi, then capitol of North Vietnam. I later learned that they had originated in Maryland and were closed-down in 1973 by the FCC. My next pirate station was from a ship far across the pond, in the North Sea, named “Radio Nordsee International.” This was soon followed by another ship station off the coast of the UK, “Radio Caroline.” This was in the early ‘70s. A decade later I was hearing several more pirate stations, both from Europe and North America. While difficult to hear due to distance and signal weakness, the European stations were quite regular in their broadcast schedules. What made the American pirates interesting was that you had no idea on what frequency they would appear, or at what time they would appear. To avoid detection from the FCC they would only appear for 15 to 30 minutes at a time. One had to be familiar with propagational characteristics and sunspot patterns to know where and when to listen. Stations began to announce “mail drops” (an address of a third party) to communicate with listeners. They would reward verified listeners with what ham operators call a “QSL-card” verifying reception. At one brief point in the early 1990s I held the international record for verified pirate radio stations. But my interest in such stations waned in the late-1990s when the US pirate radio scene began to be increasingly populated by people with a right-wing extremist political agenda and with little interest in quality content but more interest in hatred and vulgarity. It also waned because much of the “mystery” had been removed when I began to discover who the real operators of these stations were. In some cases, one person could be responsible for as many as 10 very different but well-produced “stations” at a time. Some pirate operators were DJs of legitimate stations where they felt stifled from exercising their creative juices in their real jobs. Pirate radio gave them that creative outlet that was lost when most US stations began airing nothing but network affiliated programs. Of course, these DJs also had to have a knowledge of radio electronics or have a friend who had such knowledge to be able to set up their own broadcast station. It is surprising how with only some low cost used amateur radio equipment, a mixer, microphone, and some tape, one could produce and broadcast a professional-sounding show. But the mystery was gone for me.

But, the mystery is never gone in music. From my ongoing research I am constantly being rewarded with new and exciting sounds from rare and unusual music. Once one mystery is resolved there seems to be a never-ending source of new mysteries to discover. That is because I haven’t heard all the old music and new music is constantly being created.

My interest in radio and music intertwined. And the mysteries of both were mixed together in some unexplainable way. Of course, being exposed to the latest and greatest top 40 hits I eventually succumbed to enjoying them all. In fact, due to the sense of nostalgia, I think I appreciate some of them more today than I did when I first heard them – not that some have withstood the test of time, but because they provide flashbacks to the early stages of my life’s development. They have become forever attached to fond memories.

I turned 13 in February 1966. Officially I was a teenager. Around that time my parents purchased our first stereo that played LPs. Of course, their first LPs were things like Al Caiola, Herb Alpert, and Percy Faith. But, I found myself gravitating more to rock than to my parents’ musical interests. It was also the beginning of the psychedelic era, and the experimentation found in psychedelic rock. I immediately found a kinship with these psychedelic rock pioneers. At first it was the hit-makers like The Beatles, Spanky & Our Gang, Count 5, and Blues Magoos; just their hits. My parents continued to purchase music gifts for me from Herb Alpert, Baja Marimba Band, and Pete Fountain. Finally, for my 15th birthday, they relented to giving me the “Incense and Peppermints” album by Strawberry Alarm Clock; my first rock album. While my interest in this album originally was their title track hit, I soon became fascinated with the myriad textures of their more “psychedelicized” songs on the LP.  This opened the door to more explorations. I remember going to K-Mart with my folks and while they shopped for other things I hung out at the LP racks, staring at the album covers of “Freak Out!” by The Mothers of Invention, “Tenderness Junction” by The Fugs, “After Bathing at Baxter’s” by Jefferson Airplane, and the eponymous albums by Silver Apples and Ultimate Spinach. The thing that really drew me in was that none of these albums listed song titles on the outside jacket, neither front nor back. I thought “How could this be? How do I know what is in these interesting and weird looking albums?” It was just too much mystery for my teenage mind to bear. I had to hear them. So, with the little money I received from chores and gifts I began to accumulate a small collection of this psychedelic music. I purchased that Ultimate Spinach album and loved it to death! I also bought “The Beat Goes On” by Vanilla Fudge, which is considered by some critics to be the worst rock album in history. But I still loved it at the time. Of course, I still liked many of the hits in both the rock and pop world, so I was still getting music by Richard Harris, Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, as well as Steppenwolf, Cream, Jefferson Airplane and the like.

Yet I seemed to be hotwired into gravitating to that which is unusual, obscure, or challenging more than the hit sounds. At first, I rationalized that some of the lesser known artists I loved were as good as, if not better than, the hit makers. But in all honesty, while this is true for some, it is not true of others. I know quality when I hear it, for sure. But for some artists, it isn’t quality or virtuosity that draws me in; it is something nebulous and hard to describe. If you have ever heard “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” by The Mothers of Invention, or “White Light/White Heat” by The Velvet Underground you will note that the vocal harmonies are intentionally dissonant, seemingly executed poorly, but on purpose. Now, I didn’t laugh at this, but it clearly caught my attention and it worked to draw me further into the music of these artists. By the way, there were less than a handful of 45s issued by these two groups combined, and only at the insistence of their managers at Verve Records. Their singles never hit the charts. At my most rebellious time, not having hits was a badge of honor in my book. I have since seen the flaw in this thinking, but also recognize that having hits does not guarantee the music is worthy of interest.

I am by nature also a collector. This is something that I share with my brothers.  Some of our interests are the same, such as collecting Native American prehistoric artifacts and the salt-glazed pottery made by our ancestors’ businesses back in the 1800s. But we also collect many different things. Vinyl and CDs have become a big item for me. Adding to the music, itself, I find that rarity is a factor in my interests. This has led me to an interest in private press LPs from the 60s and 70s.

We often talk about the hit makers, and sometimes we talk about the ones who came close but never became well known. For example, let’s look at the San Francisco scene of the 60s. You had the big guns like Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & The Fish, and Big Brother & The Holding Company. Those are the bands that people often think of when you mention the music scene in San Francisco during the “Summer of Love”. So, let’s call them first tier groups. You had a second tier, which included some hit makers. Some of these bands were formed elsewhere but made the Bay their home and became quite popular. Santana, Steve Miller Band, Moby Grape, Beau Brummels, Sopwith Camel, and even Blue Cheer would fit the tier two category; there were quite a few.  Then, there were third tier groups who were considered interesting due to the quality of their work. These would be The Great Society, The Charlatans, It’s a Beautiful Day, Mystery Trend, The Vejtables, and Sons of Champlin. Digging deeper you find a fourth tier including Indian Puddin’ & Pipe, West Coast Natural Gas, Tripsichord Music Box, Frumious Bandersnatch, and Ace of Cups. You can continue peeling the onion into fifth and sixth tier groups as well. Keep going and you will eventually get to the private press recordings of groups so obscure that nobody remembers, nor wants to remember. Here you will find The Ethix, which later evolved into the fourth-tier San Francisco group, Fifty Foot Hose. Another would be Christian Yoga Church’s only LP, with some of the artists moving from San Francisco to Tennessee to form the longest active commune in the US, The Farm, and subsequently forming The Farm Band. These private press albums were usually only issued in pressings of 1,000 or less, many in the 100 to 500 pressing range. There are even some with as few as 50 or even 25 pressings. From Pittsburgh there is the band, Fresh Blueberry Pancake, that only had 25 of their only LP, Heavy, pressed. Thankfully, within the past two decades, Shadoks, a record label in Germany, located a clean copy of their album (master tapes for such rarities are usually never found) and reissued it on both CD and LP. They also gave it artwork that somewhat fits the band name and the heavy, guitar-laden music within.

Then there are recordings from more famous artists that were never intended for public consumption. Or, they were released before the artist became popular. Perhaps there is an acetate, a test pressing, or a cassette that has been duplicated and circulated to appreciative listeners and collectors. Many of the recipients of these rarities are other artists who find inspiration from them. Some have been withheld by the artists because they do not feel they are worthy examples of their work. I have been privy to some of these and can tell you that perhaps where the artist did not think it worthy, I found it to be a gem. There are a couple recordings that I possess where the artists insisted that the music they shared with me was only to be enjoyed by me and never to be shared with anyone else. I’ve honored their wishes and will continue to do so.  Unfortunately, some of this work is worthy of mass consumption by those who would appreciate their talent, but by restricting my ability to share, it robs me of the joy I get from sharing. For sharing is the other side of the coin to collecting rare and interesting music.

So now that I have laid the ground work, please entertain my efforts and the joy I receive from sharing some of my “finds” of the past few years. Note that photos were taken by the author, and not from stock photos. Please excuse the lack of centering on some.

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Cardinali Brothers – More Than Luck (1971)

I had been on the lookout for this southwest country rock album for years. The music is like early Eagles, or more like Glen Frey’s earlier band, Longbranch Pennywhistle. There is a folky flavor with beautiful vocal harmonies and top-notch songwriting. Last year, on a lark, I did a Google search and found the brothers have a music store in Ojai, California. After making contact, they offered to send me a digitized copy if I provided them the CD-R. I now have in my possession a CD version of their album, in great sound.

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Dick Watson Five – Baker Street (1966)

I had lusted after a copy of this rarely seen album for well over a decade. It never appears on eBay, Discogs, or any of the other Internet music sites. This was an album of pre-psychedelic, British invasion influenced rock by a bunch of New Jersey teenagers. It is based on a Broadway musical about Sherlock Holmes, hence the name of the band, “Dick Watson Five.” They had taken the music from this show and put it into a rock format, with somewhat convincing success, albeit their fake British accents. The band also can boast that one of their members, guitarist Jim McCarthy, went to a Fugs concert in 1966 and as a result he decided to quit the Dick Watson Five and form underground NYC band, The Godz with some of his work buddies from Sam Goody’s. Well, I located the drummer for the Dick Watson Five, Carmen Deligatti, who had moved on to bigger and better things. When I found him via the Internet, he had sold his only copy of the Baker Street album, but he had made a digital recording before selling it. This digital recording was made early in the development of mp3s, so it is not of the digital quality which can be achieved today. However, it is obvious he had kept his LP in pristine condition based on the digitized version that I received. Whoever was the lucky person to purchase the original LP, I sure hope they some day contact one of the labels releasing rarities such as this. It deserves a wider release, even if only for historical purposes.

The Music of the Santa Cruz Mountains (1974)

Another seldom seen album, with four artists (J.J. Johnson, Kai Moore, Bruce Frye, and Bahia) from the Santa Cruz mountains in the early 70s. I found someone who had an original copy for sale in excellent condition. The front cover has an attractive painting of a forest scene, but it is glued onto the album jacket and has some ripple effect to it. This only adds to the private press aspects and the rural hippie vibe of the music. This has a very enjoyable, laid back ambiance with some Laurel Canyon influences; a very professional sound without getting commercial.

Dennis the Fox – Mother Trucker (1972)

Dennis Caldirola (aka Dennis the Fox) is a crooner. But Dennis wants to be a rocker. He does not succeed at either, but is somewhere between the two, or perhaps just out there somewhere. He is not at all a bad singer. And his descriptive and colorful songwriting, emotive vocal delivery, along with excellent studio musicianship carries the album. These qualities are somewhat convincing that Dennis the Fox has been around and knows things. But it is not enough to make him a star in any respect. Like Mistress Mary, who I discussed in a previous blog post, he gives the appearance of someone with unbridled talent that has not been reigned in enough to become a top shelf artist. Despite it all, I love this private pressed album and was very happy to see it reissued on the Modern Harmonic label. Originals, like the others above, command big bucks (unless you are lucky like I was with the Santa Cruz LP). The reissue has been remastered from the original tapes and is well worth the listen.

Hawaiian Spotlighters – Mauna Kea Breeze (1965)

This was an LA based family affair, producing a Hawaiian-based recording that is perhaps one of the rarest exotica albums ever pressed to vinyl. Their origins are Hilo, Hawaii, when they were known as Al’s Spotlighters; Al being Al Pabilona. He and his family moved to Hayward, California and recorded this album in the family garage in 1964. Only 200 copies were pressed, and few exist today. Using top of the line restoration, the album has been reissued on Bacchus Archives. Placing this LP on the turntable one needs to sit back on the recliner, sip a mai tai, and let the Mauna Kea breeze float by.

Canaries – Flying High with The Canaries (1970)

Who would name a rock band after a small yellow bird? Well, someone from the Canary Islands, of course! In their home base, they were known as Los Canarios. The album was recorded and released in the United States while they were on tour, trying to strike it big in the States. Unfortunately, that did not happen for them. But we have this lasting recording of teen beat sounds to enjoy. Originals were on the BT Puppy label but mine is a 1982 reissue on Spanish label, Cocodrilo.

The Minister and The Nuns – When the Heart Sings (1966)

Imagine a Presbyterian minister from South Charleston, West Virginia doing missionary work in Brazil, teaming up with a group of Brazilian Roman Catholic nuns to record an album of eclectic sounds to minister to “who knows”. This is what you have with this very limited released album. Musical style varies from late 50s easy listening to bossa nova to a very tame rock sound. They all sing, and the nuns provide the instrumentation. There is simply nothing like this unclassifiable sound, but it is interesting and pleasant and the religious message in inobtrusive. The album is quite scarce, yet I was able to find a copy, autographed by Rev. David Wayne Smith, in near mint condition. Before acquiring this LP, I was able to find and download a recording of the minister talking about his missionary work and how it came about that he recorded with the nuns.

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Minette – Come to Me at Tea Time (1968)

Another album that brings four-digit figures when it even appears on the market is Come to Me at Tea Time by real people female impersonator, Jacques Minette. Usually such albums are full of sexual innuendo and nothing more. But this album is full of social commentary about the Vietnam war, overthrowing the government, and even psychedelic drugs. The cover has Minette encircled by marijuana leaves. Maybe the title’s reference to “tea” means tea of a euphoric nature? I will leave the other double entendre in the title alone. The slightly out-of-tune piano fits perfectly with Minette’s unusual vocals. I was very fortunate to locate a download from a near mint copy.

In Other News

I wanted to mention that in 2017, there were three album releases from artists living in San Diego County, that in my opinion deserve recognition.

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The Hollywood Project – Olympic Boulevard

The Hollywood Project is a collaboration between Dave Humphries, who wrote the music and some of the lyrics, and Stephen Kalinich, who wrote most of the lyrics, and was produced by Wolfgang Grasekamp. The music is performed by Humphries, Grasekamp, Tom Quinn, Todd Sander, Mike Alvarez, Gus Beaudoin, Sven-Eric Seaholm, and Jacques Mees. The style is in the category of post-Beatles Harrison, Harry Nilsson, Brian Wilson…well you get the idea. Beautiful melodies, pensive lyrics, and impeccable performance. They bring to the table subjects we don’t like to talk about but leave you hopeful and optimistic at the end. A touching, beautiful bouquet of songs.

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Cindy Lee Berryhill – The Adventurist

This is Cindy Lee’s first offering since the death of her husband, Paul Williams, who had founded Crawdaddy magazine. In this she writes of her loss and her life in poignant, emotive lyrics that at one moment can bring you to tears and the next get you laughing. The album is a musical painting, skillfully crafted, sung, and performed by top shelf musicians. The music can be challenging, quirky, and yet beautiful. It kept me on the edge of my seat upon my first listen. This is an album you want to really sit quietly and listen to, as you would an intense classical piece. The Adventurist was nominated for album of the year by the San Diego Music Awards in 2018, and has received enthusiastic national attention, including from Rolling Stone.

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Marie Haddad – Stories from Atlantis

This is an amazing album. Marie’s vocals have never been more intensely emotive. The music is exquisite. There is a mystical element to the music, perhaps due to the Middle Eastern element in her writing, both lyrically and musically. With the collection of eastern European instruments mixed with typical pop instrumentation, there are a variety of styles going on, and they are all neatly woven together to make it an experience full of wonderment. It was no surprise to see long time recording artist, Jeff Pekarek contributing on bass and bouzouki – his 1982 album To Each Their Own, has always been a favorite of mine when I am in the mood for Asian-influenced cosmic musical travels. I am tempted to write about each song on Marie’s album and how it affected me, but it would make this post go far too long. Just let me say I LOVE THIS ALBUM! I was so happy when it won the 2018 San Diego Music Award for best pop album.

And so, I will end it here. There have been many music events and new artists I have heard since the beginning of 2018. Maybe I will write about them next time. But, I’ve been promising to get this out the door for far too long. Stay safe. Blessings!

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